Riphooks, Devil Scritches, Bumbarrels & Clodhoppers


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Riphooks, Devil Scritches, Bumbarrels & Clodhoppers

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My colleague Alex has been doing a bit of research into some of the names for birds that have been lost form regular usage. Some may have been in widespread use in the past, others were perhaps confined to a single county. Either way, there are some great names among them.

This research was sparked by a conversation with one of our volunteer guides, Mick, who referred to a dunlin as a "plover's page"

Alex's initial list of names was taken from the website, and I'm sure that if you look on here you'll find a few more favourites of your own. I have added a few alternatives that I like in square brackets.

Alex's favourite lost country bird names:

  • An eagle (either species) was called an ‘Erne’ – some mountain peaks or hilltops in England bear this name, revealing their old distribution, as does Loch Erne in Northern Ireland.
  • Owls had good names because of their unusual appearance and harsh calls; ‘Billy Wix’ and ‘Pudge Owl’ referred to the barn owl, ‘Horn Coot’ or ‘Hornie Hoolet’ referred to the long-eared owl, and ‘Ferny Hoolet’ to the tawny owl.
  • Possibly the coolest bird name ever is for the falcon now known as the hobby – ‘Riphook’.
  • Kestrels were called ‘Hoverhawks’ or ‘Wind-fanner’, for obvious reasons. [I personally love the name "windhover".]
  • No idea why but the merlin was once ‘Tweedler’.
  • Song thrush – also ‘Mavis’.
  • A bullfinch was called a ‘Nope’ or ‘Alp’ – maybe onomatopoeic?
  • ‘Shufflewing’ is now the dunnock – a good bit of behavioural observation.
  • The wren – ‘Stumpy Toddy’. I defy you to read that name without grinning.
  • The goldcrest was once called ‘Woodcock Pilot’ as it was once assumed they hitched lifts on the back of woodcocks to cross the North Sea on migration, as no-one believed such a small bird could make the journey by itself.
  • An apt description of the jay’s call – ‘Devil Scritch’!

Devil's scritch by Nigel Blake (

  • ‘Sheep-stare’ is now called a starling, retaining the latter part of the name.
  • Chaffinch is a common bird so it has a lot of old names, my faves are ‘Flackie’ and ‘Boldie’.
  • Great tits were known as ‘Pridden Prals’ for reasons I cannot fathom, also ‘Bee-biter’ which risks confusion with the bee-eater.
  • I love this one for the blue tit – ‘Pickcheese’.
  • ‘Black Hatto’ for the black-headed gull is a bit obvious.
  • We know magpie is a corruption of ‘Meg-pie’ but ‘Pianet’ is quite a poetic name for this oft-maligned bird.
  • ‘Aberdevine’ is a brilliant if confusing name for the siskin.
  • The whitethroat had a name that describes its song-flight: ‘Singing Skyrocket’.
  • ‘Bighead’ for greenfinch is just insulting!
  • Goldfinches are so pretty they were showered with lovely names including; ‘Sweet-William’ and ‘King Harry’. A more observational name is "Thistlefinch.
  • ‘Little Woodpie’ is a very cute name for the lesser-spotted woodpecker.
  • There is a touch of Roald Dahl to the name ‘Clodhopper’, or as we know it, the wheatear [this is also observational].
  • Redstarts are always trembling their tails when perched, which gave rise to their alternate name of ‘Flirt-tail’ [I actually ID'ed a redstart from this behavioural trait last week]
  • Nightjars have many alternate names, almost all referring to their weird ‘song’, if it can be called that, but the best might be ‘Scissors-grinder’. [I wrote a blog about nightjar names a couple of years ago. perhaps the most familiar is "goatsucker", which is also the literal translation of their scientific name, Caprimulgus]
  • Bittern - The many dialect terms for the bittern show alliterative playfulness with the bird’s reverberations: butter bump, bog bumper, bog blutter, raredumle- ‘reed-boomer’ miredromble, but the English language also adopted French bitour, which became ‘bittern’
  • Nuthatches were known as "nut-jobbers"
  • Eaves swallow is a fantastic name for the house martin
  • Saving the best ’till last, the ever-lovable long-tailed tit has hundreds of folk names among which some of the best and funniest are: ‘Bumbarrel’, ‘Jack-in-a-bottle’ and my absolute favourite – ‘Hedge Mumruffin’!

Bumbarrel by John Bridges (

Many of these names will have been in use for centuries, but even in the New World there are some great great colloquial names, such as "Timberdoodle" for an American woodcock.

And, of course, birds are not the only animals to have acquired a variety of names through folklore or local dialect, and I can't possibly write a blog about folk names without mentioning my wife's favourite: bishy barnabees (or bishy barney bees). Anyone from Norfolk or Suffolk is probably familiar with the term, but for those from the rest of the UK, like me, we know them as ladybirds. 

A Bishy barnabee by Jodie Randall (

  • This was a fascinating read.  I can think of quite a few people who'd qualify as nut-jobbers, though not in quite the same way as a nuthatch.

    I wonder how a magpie came to be called a pianet?  A small piano?